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As one critic of the Carson Mansion glibly stated, if hybridity is a distinctly American quality, then this exuberant residence in northern California is quintessentially American. Indeed, this Victorian building is a pastiche of Eastlake (or Stick), Queen Anne, and Renaissance Revival stylistic tropes, but architects Newsom and Newsom merely were employing the decorative opulence, eclecticism, and historicism particular to late-nineteenth-century picturesque architectural design. Commissioned by lumber baron William Carson, this house’s association with a leading Eureka citizen and businessman as well as its own materiality reflect the history of California’s redwood lumber industry, one of the state’s oldest yet under-recognized economic drivers.
The rise of Carson’s fortune was in lockstep with the development of Eureka, the form of which Carson would help shape. Born in New Brunswick, Canada, William McKendrie Carson (1825–1912) immigrated to San Francisco in 1849 as part of the Gold Rush, intent upon making a fortune prospecting. That same year, an overland expedition mapped Humboldt Bay, the second largest enclosed bay in California, located some 270 miles north of San Francisco. The settlement of Eureka (a Greek word meaning “I found it!”) was established in May 1850 on the protected channel between Humboldt Bay’s two basins. The town site was intended as a deep water port for supply ships, receiving goods for the gold miners on the Trinity, Klamath, and Salmon rivers and exporting minerals and ore. Over the next several years, an orderly grid was carved out of a dense redwood forest, and the prospectors who had come to Eureka in search of gold found the value in selling lumber: felled trees were sent down the coast to San Francisco, which was undergoing a building boom. By 1854, seven lumber mills had arisen on Eureka’s northern shoreline. By 1864, Carson had turned his attention to Eureka’s nascent lumber industry, forming the Dolbeer and Carson Lumber Company with John Dolbeer, which, in the 1860s and 1870s, was the third largest lumber exporter in the “timber capital” of California.
After 1881, when Dolbeer patented the steam donkey engine to aid the process of log removal from isolated, rugged areas, Carson’s fortunes were set. In addition, Carson had partnered with John Vance to establish the Eel River and Eureka Railroad, solidifying his stake in two lucrative industries. Originally, the Carson family dwelled in a modest house on Second Street while the firm’s lumber mill occupied the site of the present mansion, on the east side of M Street. Following the profitable success of Dolbeer’s patent, Carson began planning a new domicile on the mill site, a parcel that occupies a city block close to the waterfront, in 1883. By this time, a vibrant commercial center and grand residential enclave was growing up along the waterfront where mills had once dominated—a sign of the town’s prosperity. Carson retained the services of well-known San Francisco architects Newsom and Newsom in 1884, and construction commenced that year. Sources suggest that the undertaking was a “works project” for the firm’s lumberjacks, to keep them employed during an economic downturn. The fine craftsmanship was executed by the mill’s carpenters while the house’s construction purportedly took 100 men over two years to complete (it was ready for occupancy in October 1886).
Originally, the mansion was surrounded by sweeping lawns and a copse; a path accessed a greenhouse and kitchen gardens, a wooden outbuilding, and a carriage house. Facing westward, the three-story redwood villa rises from a full basement to a jagged roofline formed by an asymmetrical massing of turrets, bays, and towers topped with steeply pitched gable roofs, finials, and a balustraded widow’s walk. The facade’s key element is a lofty central tower with a pyramidal roof. Its verticality is underscored by ornately striped medallions, brackets, and balustrade that are all features of the Stick Style, as are the decorative vergeboards beneath the gable eaves.
While most of the exterior’s planar surfaces are clad in narrow clapboard, the upper portions are covered in a wave-like or scalloped shingle designs reminiscent of the late-nineteenth-century Shingle Style. The rounded towers on the east (rear) elevation are distinctly Queen Anne, while the oversized, turned posts on the first-story veranda loosely alluded to Mannerist or sixteenth-century Renaissance styles. The house’s original eighteen rooms included a square vestibule that led through double doors to a series of parlors. The adjacent dining room was based on that in Mexico City’s Chapultepec Castle. A large drawing room occupied the second floor, while the third floor held a ballroom and a billiard room. These public rooms were finished in primavera wood that Carson had imported from Central America, as well as onyx mantels from Mexico, stained glass, ornate plaster ceilings, and carved cornices, brackets, and overmantels of Indian mahogany.
The Carson Mansion’s varied massing has been described as “pattern book,” and it is noteworthy that the Newsom brothers published the first volume of Picturesque California Homes (which offered 40 plates of house designs ranging in cost from $700 to $15,000) the same year that Carson retained their services. Samuel and Joseph Cather Newsom were, like Carson, Canadians who had immigrated to San Francisco. Having apprenticed as draftsmen in their eldest brother’s architectural practice, Samuel and Joseph formed their own partnership in 1879. The brothers were known mostly for their residential architecture, which included the Stick Style Seymour C. Davisson House (1881–1885) in Oakland and the Queen Anne Pinney House (1887) in Sierra Madre. In Eureka, the Carson commission led to a series of other projects, including the T.H. Boyd House (1885), the Carson Office Block (1892), and the J. Milton Carson House (1897). While the Eureka projects all exhibit applied ornament and forms suggestive of the Queen Anne and Stick styles, the brothers’ oeuvre is a vast mélange of eclectic, historicist styles that were popular at the fin de siècle—from Shingle Style to Mediterranean Revival—signifying the architects’ commercial aptitude in employing any style then in vogue.
Following Carson’s death in 1912, the house was occupied by his eldest son, Milton, and his family until the late 1940s. Clarence La Boyteaux briefly held the property before divesting it to the Ingomar Club, a private Eureka businessmen’s club established by J. H. Crothers and Carl Gustafson in 1950. Based on the Humboldt Club, of which Carson was a member, the Ingomar Club is named for the theater located on the third floor of the Buhne Building, also built by Carson. Since its ownership, the incorporated membership club has restored the private property and grounds. The exterior has been maintained and only slightly altered over the successive decades. While the iron balustrade on the second floor is original, the third-floor’s original iron cresting has been replaced by wooden balustrades. Electric fixtures first installed in the 1920s and then expanded in the 1950s remain on the first floor, while the upper floors’ fixtures have been updated. Unobtrusive additions on the side of the house were made by the club, which also installed an elevator in the late twentieth century.
Baird, Joseph A., Jr., “Carson House,” Humboldt County, California. Historic American Building Survey, 1964. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (HABS No. CAL-1911).
Melendy, H. Brett. “Two Men and a Mill: John Dolbeer, William Carson, and the Redwood Lumber Industry in California.” California Historical Society Quarterly 38, no. 1 (March 1959): 59-71.
Naversen, Kenneth. Beautiful America’s California Victorians. Woodburn, OR: Beautiful America Publishing Company, 1998.
Rohde, Jerry. “Eureka Triumphs Thanks to the Merciless Politicking of its Largest Landowner.” North Coast Journal, April 13, 2006.
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